A 2D isometric game of bodily fluids, religious horror, arcade-style shooting and randomly-generated dungeoneering, The Binding Of Isaac is unashamedly weird and unashamedly sinister. It’s also wildly immediate, despite being determined to tell a tragic tale of body horror and bad parenting.
Isaac is the child of an unhappy, deeply religious home, and like the Biblical Isaac finds himself intended to be a sacrifice to God. Fleeing into a horror-filled basement, he finds himself battling monsters and warping his own body in the hope of escape and redemption. Sounds horrible, right?
Well, grotesque it can certainly be, the boss monsters especially are hideous creatures of bloated flesh and rage, but it’s also a deeply compulsive cartoonish RPG in the classic Zelda vein.
Isaac himself takes the form of a naked crying child, really just two pink circles, defeating the menaces of the randomly generated basement with his tears. You control him like a twin-stick shooter, moving one direction and firing another. Alas, there's no official gamepad support as yet, but creator Ed McMillen (one half of the duo behind hardcore platformer Super Meat Boy, but here working with a different collaborator on a far more personal project) has ensured it plays and feels ideal and mouse and keyboard. You'll spend your time alternately shooting and trying to reach new parts of the dungeons in the hope of goodies and bosses and what still-stranger sights still await you.
As he explores, Isaac will collect upgrades. One playthrough might have you spitting chocolate milk at your enemies, another might have your attack emanating from an, uh, alternative orifice entirely. These upgrades, a random set of which will spawn each time you play, are in keeping with the game’s themes of mummy issues and religious iconography. Donning his mother’s high heels might lend range to Isaac’s tear attack, while growth hormones will make his attacks stronger but visibly mutate his skull. As he accrues upgrades, Isaac mutates horribly, eventually a walking pillar of deformities, cross-dressing and Satanic possession.
For your part, these upgrades make you ever more conscious of the peril of death. If Isaac is defeated, you’ll need to take it all from the top and lose everything you’ve acquired, plus your progress towards your confrontation with your misguided mother. While the game has much in common with the easy cheer of the early Zeldas, it’s also a grit-jawed roguelike, designed to present you with a random challenge and not necessarily to be beaten.
It says much about how engrossing and sharply designed the game is that the unsettling horror and snarling at religion sort of fades into the background. Your interest becomes not being disgusted by what you see, but in surviving and upgrading, lasting as long as you can and making a steady stream of strategic decisions. For instance, occasionally you’ll stumble into a shrine to the devil, offering a choice of major upgrades such as tiny floating follower who assists your attacks but demanding a precious portion of health in return. Is it worth the exchange? That’s your choice. There’s no right answer.
And you’ll probably be killed anyway, whether it’s by a giant, razor-jawed centipede coating the room in substances most foul, by a personification of your own Pride or Greed, by a floating, screaming head or just by a tiny fly. The Binding of Isaac is not a kind game, not in the slightest, but you will always feel like you’re making progress and that next time, next time you’ll make it through.
Given how cheap it is, pretty much the price of a pint, there’s an awful lot of game and an awful lot of surprises in here. You’ll be playing The Binding of Isaac for a long time, but do try not to think about what it’ll to do your state of mind.
The sick imagery means it's not for everyone, but those who can stomach the body-horror and Bible-baiting will find a smart and fresh action roleplaying game, laden with humour and barbed introspection as well as compelling dungeoneering.